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Army Develops Robotic Supply Convoys to Save Soldiers

by Matt Cox on February 26, 2014

Robot ConvoyU.S. Army leaders hope to one day resupply troops with unmanned, ground convoys and pilotless, cargo-carrying drone aircraft.

The Pentagon is continuing to build on the experience it has gained with unmanned technology over in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. military forces have enjoyed success using small unmanned ground vehicles to search enemy caves and suspected enemy bombs. Large, armed drone aircraft have also proven effective at destroying high-value enemy leaders in remote areas.

Now, Army scientists are working to use this unmanned technology for large-scale, resupply operations.

The Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, and Lockheed Martin recently completed a successful demonstration that showed fully autonomous convoys operating in urban environments using multiple vehicles types.

The demonstration earlier this month at Fort Hood, Texas, was part of the Army and Marine Corps’ Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System program, or AMAS. It marked the completion of the program’s Capabilities Advancement Demonstration.

The test involved driverless M915 tactical trucks and the Palletized Loading System vehicles navigating hazards and obstacles such as road intersections, oncoming traffic, stalled and passing vehicles, pedestrians and traffic circles in both urban and rural test areas, according to a recent Lockheed Martin release.

“The AMAS CAD hardware and software performed exactly as designed, and dealt successfully with all of the real-world obstacles that a real-world convoy would encounter,” said David Simon, AMAS program manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

The Unmanned Mission Module part of AMAS, which includes a high performance LIDAR sensor, a second GPS receiver and additional algorithms, is installed as a kit and can be used on virtually any military vehicle, Lockheed officials maintain.

Senior Army leaders representing the Army Materiel Command, the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), the Combined Arms Support Command and TARDEC witnessed the demonstration, according to Lockheed officials.

The AMAS CAD was jointly funded by ARCIC and Lockheed Martin. While the AMAS JCTD is aimed at augmenting the safety and security of human drivers in a convoy mission, the CAD was aimed at completely removing the soldier from the cab.

“It was very important that we had representation from the technology, acquisition and user bases, along with our industry partners, here at the CAD,” said TARDEC technical manager Bernard Theisen. “We are very pleased with the results of the demonstration, because it adds substantial weight to the Army’s determination to get robotic systems into the hands of the warfighter.”

But ground-based resupply is only part of the effort.

In Afghanistan, combat outposts require on average 100,000 pounds of material a week, and high elevation and impassable mountain roads often restrict access.

Helicopters are one solution, but the supply of available helicopters can’t meet the demand for their services, which cover diverse operational needs including resupply, tactical insertion and extraction, and casualty evacuation, according to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency officials.

As a potential solution, DARPA has been working on a prototype that would provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation for logistics, personnel transport and tactical support missions for small ground units.

DARPA’s Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System design, known as ARES, would rely on a vertical take-off and landing flight module, designed to operate as an unmanned aerial vehicle capable of transporting a variety of payloads. The flight module would have its own power system, fuel, digital flight controls and remote command-and-control interfaces, DARPA officials said.

Twin tilting ducted fans would provide efficient hovering and landing capabilities in a compact configuration, with rapid conversion to high-speed cruise flight similar to small aircraft. The system could use landing zones half the size typically needed by similarly sized helicopters, enabling it to land in rugged terrain and aboard ships, officials said.

“Many missions require dedicated vertical take-off and landing assets, but most ground units don’t have their own helicopters,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager.

DARPA officials see the flight module traveling between its home base and field operations to deliver and retrieve several different types of detachable mission modules, each designed for a specific purpose such as cargo pickup and delivery, casualty extraction or airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The flight module would have a useful load capability of up to 3,000 pounds, more than 40 percent the takeoff gross weight of the aircraft.

Units could direct the flight modules using apps on their mobile phones or ruggedized tablets. Initially, the system would be unmanned, with a future path towards semi-autonomous flight systems and user interfaces for optionally manned/controlled flight.

ARES is currently in its third and final phase of development. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is the lead vehicle design and system integration performer for Phase 3 of the program.

“ARES would make organic and versatile VTOL capability available to many more individual units,” Bagai said. “Our goal is to provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation that avoids ground-based threats, in turn supporting expedited, cost-effective operations and improving the likelihood of mission success.”

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{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

Dfens February 26, 2014 at 10:40 am

Isn't this a timely technology? Now that they are laying off all our soldiers, they can have drone convoys resupply our drone army, with a drone air force to provide air support. Who says the defense contractors can't have it all?

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Musson February 27, 2014 at 9:28 am

Is it just me? Or, could any insurgency disrupt the flow of supplies by just standing in front of the convoy? Then, they could just help themselves to whatever is in the trucks.

Outside the Green zone they used to put babies in carseats in the road to stop convoys. Of course, their next step was to detonate a vehicle born IED – killing soldiers and blowing their own children to bits.

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Doubtom February 27, 2014 at 11:55 am

It's clear we've lost the stomach for direct confrontational warfare and will soon transition to a completely comfortable 'armchair type of warfare. Of course this will play hell with the medals industry. lol

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hibeam February 26, 2014 at 11:01 am

Why not robotic helicopter supply convoys? Why waste time and money on these mega armored behemoths that a farmer with a bag of fertilizer can and will go after.

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Dfens February 26, 2014 at 12:56 pm

I think you're on the right track, but I'd go for a wing-in-ground-effect vehicle for resupply. They work in that same area of the transport envelope as the blimps, but without calling as much attention to themselves, and they are much less sensitive to the weather than most aircraft.

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Bernard February 26, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Even that is cost prohibitive, aircraft of all forms are more expensive to maintain and less fuel efficient than ground vehicles. Not to mention the logistics of landing and take off. A truck is simple, cheap, reliable, and fuel efficient.

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Dfens February 28, 2014 at 10:47 am

What you say is true, but success rate also has to be factored into the equation. If it's such a dangerous route you need to send robotic vehicles, then it's probably dangerous enough to warrant a higher success rate vehicle. Plus, these wing-in-ground-effect vehicles are considerably less expensive than helicopters or standard aircraft per pound delivered.

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Kim Scholer February 26, 2014 at 1:21 pm

Transporting tons of supplies with a helicopter is prohibitively expensive, compared to an aircraft. And even more so compared to a ground vehicle. The latter may be more vulnerable to IEDs, but even if some of those are blown to bits, supplying by ground transport still makes sense economically.

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Bill February 27, 2014 at 9:19 am

Air limits load weights and in much more weather sensitive as well as being cost prohibitive

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rob February 26, 2014 at 11:11 am

fully autonomous?? really?

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josh p February 26, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Well this is all nice but will this get slashed as well due to the recent proposed defense cuts?

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jamesb February 26, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Ok…..

Common sense question?

With NOBODY minding the store?

Couldn't the bad guys just hop on board….Take EVERYTHING and Leave without a shot being fired?

It sure would be a manpower savings for bad guys ……

Lot's of empty arrivals to the troops who need stuff, eh?

This wet dream is a waste of the tax payers money….

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Lance February 26, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Yes but the Pentagon tech idiots cant think beyond a computer.

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Kim Scholer February 26, 2014 at 1:25 pm

You're assuming the vehicles will not be protected with – say – stun guns, tear gas or any other means of 'theft deterrent'. Or that the convoy will not have a contingent of soldiers going along with it. Even an armed drone could be guarding a convoy, should the whole human element be at the remote controls only.

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LPF February 27, 2014 at 4:06 am

So in other words, robots to replace the drivers and soldiers to protect the robots..perfect sense

Sweet weeping jesus :S

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SuperGuest February 27, 2014 at 7:35 am

Yes, it does make perfect sense. Soldiers to protect the robots carrying the supplies. I don't understand what your theatrics are all about?

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SuperGuest February 27, 2014 at 7:53 am

You're making huge assumptions with your apocalyptic predictions. The biggest of which is that there wouldn't be any escorts like current convoys do. But don't let that get in the way of your shrill, self righteous rants about starving soldiers and taxpayers and whatnot.

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Doubtom February 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm

In this mad rush to create drones for every possible military application, victory will always go to those who are willing to sacrifice human lives ,,,mark my words.

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Drew February 27, 2014 at 5:47 pm

That makes no sense! Bodies don't win wars… making bodies wins wars.

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Lance February 26, 2014 at 1:01 pm

BIG down side computer don't react to changing environment and threats. I see whole convoys being wiped out and the computers wont fight back to save the convoy or divert to another direction, same for helicopters. I do not like this idiotic idea to remove humans from war and replace them with robots. We have no terminator tech yet and these computers systems are too rigid to coup with real life scenarios. Hay how about a computer glitch send the convoy to the enemy it sent a stealth drone to Iran so computer can mess up our men again.

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Bill February 27, 2014 at 9:28 am

Simple solutions, provide the same overhead escort to defend the convoy, human interactive operators in the same manner as drones currently use.
We heard these same arguments a few years ago in regards to unmanned aircraft.

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Jeff Nmi Ruiz February 26, 2014 at 1:29 pm

resistance is futile. you will be assimilated.

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oblatt2 February 26, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Looting will even easier.

The Taliban will call them tribute caravans.

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Hunter76 February 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Drone vehicles can commit "suicide", making themselves very unattractive hijack targets.

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herkey February 27, 2014 at 8:57 am

bad guy wont need his suicide vest just hop on up mission accom we dont get our stuff and they get a martarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrerrrrrrrrr hero!

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Raraavis February 26, 2014 at 2:37 pm

Just throw a child under the wheels of a truck and broadcast US military robot trucks killing babies. The whole fleet will be suspended while the investigation happens. Then claim it is a cover up when the Army says it wasn’t their fault.

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Peter February 26, 2014 at 3:24 pm

That is one true post! It would cost millions to sort out and, whatever you do, you'll come out of it looking bad.

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SuperGuest February 27, 2014 at 8:06 am

That's a seriously convoluted plot. And one that could backfire as soon as someone gets video of people tossing babies in front of vehicles.

Also, If these are anything like the autonomous car prototypes, one of the core functions of these will be the ability to sense and avoid unexpected obstacles (like unwilling children being thrown in their path…seriously, do you realize how absurd that sounds?)

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Raraavis February 28, 2014 at 1:22 pm

We have enemies who bring in bodies to bomb sites for benefit of the camera crews and brainwash children into being suicide bombers. They wouldn't have a problem throwing other peoples children under one of these trucks.

If the trucks stop for every pedestrian than they would be pretty easy to setup for an ambush or to force them to reroute. Just have people form a human chain across the road and the whole convoy will have to stop. If the trucks use tear gas, sound, microwaves, or other non-lethal weapons to clear people out of the way that could become a Public Relations nightmare as the robot trucks stun grenade starving children and old women in order to get hamburgers and beer to the fat American soldiers.

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Raraavis February 26, 2014 at 2:41 pm

How many Americans drive trucks for a living? When civilian trucks are all robots what do these people do? Fight illegal aliens for jobs here or try to compete on wages with Chinese and Indian peasants for outsourced jobs.

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hibeam February 26, 2014 at 11:40 pm

That's what I said when farmers started using machinery. Tens of Millions of jobs for people with hoes eliminated. We need to get rid of farm machinery. Get humans back into those fields.

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Raraavis February 26, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Who pumps their gas?

All the enemy has to do is put enough obstacles in their path and reroute them enough times that they run out of gas. Then you have to send people out to fill them up or spend another billion to design refueling robots.

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DB-1 February 26, 2014 at 4:54 pm

How about they conduct a real test and ambush this automated convoy with real weapons fire and IED'S and lets see what happens then…

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John Deere February 27, 2014 at 2:42 am

These convoys won't operate in isolation, just as current manned convoys don't. CAS systems will still be in place. A stalled autonomous convoy would receive a lot of aerial "attention". I expect self destruct mechanisms would also be an effective theft deterrent…

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Dfens February 26, 2014 at 5:41 pm

It will be a convoy to resupply the enemy. But just because it doesn't work, doesn't mean a defense contractor can't make a ton of money developing it.

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Stephen N Russell February 26, 2014 at 7:40 pm

Seen this in sci fic movie Solar Crisis from 90s, huge convoys of civil semi tractor trailers Xing then desert.
From Japan.
On DVD

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Willie February 27, 2014 at 7:52 am

Dumb! Put a car in the road and they are sitting ducks to re-supply the enemy!

What rocket scientist didnt think of that?

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BB Rocksteady February 27, 2014 at 8:39 am

Too many folks making assumptions about TTPs without doing any research. The idea is to minimize impact on living souls. Robots do what is dull, dirty and dangerous. So instead of having a minimum rest time for the (minimum 2) drivers per vehicle, the convoy can refuel and hit the road again. And fully autonomous doesn't necessarily mean unmanned. Have you heard of the "driverless vehicles" being experimented with in the private sector? Do you think those vehicles won't have passengers? The idea is to have vehicles that do the driving (avoiding obstacles, obeying traffic laws, etc.), while passengers do whatever else. For a military convoy, that might be observing the roadside for signs of IED and ambush.

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David Meyers February 27, 2014 at 1:36 pm

What would keep a guy with a laptop and some brains from rerouting it to their base? Nothing with a computer is safe. When have seen that they can be hacked at all levels

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Hunter76 February 28, 2014 at 9:25 am

Dave,

Since you presumably have a laptop and some brains, how many strangers' systems have you been able to hack into? (Just trying to figure the expertise behind your statement.)

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jamesb February 27, 2014 at 5:10 pm

No matter what kind of excuse is mentioned here the idea IS a WASTE of the taxpayers money….
The vehicles ARE UNMANNED…To put troops guarding it defeats the purpose…
There are NOT EVEN enough ARMED drones to protect ALL the convoys…
AGAIN….
You are just saving bad guys the task driving stuff when they could have the US drive stuff right to their front door w/o ANY resistance to them stealing the stuff….
One hopes this idea along with the mechanical dog idiocy are quietly made to go away….

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Phono February 28, 2014 at 5:40 am

yeah
anyone remeber ressources-management in games like i.e. starcraft … ?!

What about the pheromone-tracks that are used by ants, wouldn't such a system make pathfinding easier for those machines?

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SuperGuest February 27, 2014 at 8:08 am

You would think that given how many people we've lost in convoys due to IEDs this would be one of the few things we could all be in favor of, but nope. Nothing pleases the almighty internet warriors.

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